I am home today with back pain from a fall at work on Thursday. I was carring a box of paper for recycling down the steps and slipped hitting my back pretty hard. I think I cracked some ribs. My almost immediate thought was, “I don’t want to give my life for recycling!”
I love to ponder the grand sweep of history. Bear with me on this extended reflection on the 4th century AD. It is an ideal window through which to view our present situation in America. The 4th century must have been an exhilarating time for the church. It began with a sharp persecution from Domitian and ended, unbelievably with the Roman goddess of Victory (Nike!) being taken down from the Roman Senate. Bishop Ambrose who was influential in Augustine’s conversion led the fight to have the goddess removed.
The turning point was Constantine’s vision and subsequent victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. In response to the vision of a cross in the sky (there are several versions of the vision) Constantine had his soldiers paint over the image of the sun god on their shields the Chi-Rho of (X and R are the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek) Christianity. Then for the rest of the century, edict by edict Christianity became first accepted, then dominate, and finally the only game in town.
The century ebbed and flowed as one would expect. There were brief reversals such as when Justinian the Apostate tried to restore the pagan gods and put Christianity in its place. It didn’t work—you can tell how effective he was by the name given him by the winners! Christianity had become too powerful. Legend has it that his dying words in battle were, “You have conquered Galilean.”
It is popular to decry “Constantinianism” and its corrosive effects on the human soul that come from the merging of your own culture with Christianity. You can’t tell who the real Christians are any more. Phariseeism comes into the church in spades. You also get blamed for every misstep that the culture does (crusades, witch burning, Inquisition).
I heartily agree with many critiques of Constantinianism, but without Constantine and the 4th century dominance by Christianity there would have been no Western civilization, no world-wide church, no democracy, no science, no sports, no women’s liberation, no diplomatic corp and yes no post office. You just can’t separate the two.
An excellent argument for this is Bernard Lewis’ best selling, “What Went Wrong?” Lewis teaches at Princeton and is considered America’s leading Muslim scholar. The title of the book is the question Muslims have been asking for two hundred years, “Given that we are right and the Infidels are wrong, why are they winning in almost every area of life?”
My favorite story in the book is report of an Islamic traveler to Vienna about 1660. The Turkish Muslim traveler is clearly in shock over what he has just seen. He describes how even the king will stop for a woman on the street and wait, for her to go by and take off his hat. If that isn’t bad enough, in his opinion, the women run everything! Now we don’t think of 17th century Vienna as breeding ground for the women’s movement, but there you have it. That would have been impossible without 1) Jesus and 2) Constantine.
Another great argument is that where there weren’t Christian princes (as bad as many of them were) Christianity simply did not survive. Nestorian Christianity, a slightly unorthodox version of Christianity, traveled east (it appears all the way to China) was eventually crushed without the protection of Christian princes. Tamerlane the Great wiped out what was left of Nestorian Christianity in the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation would never have made it without the protection of Lutheran Christian princes.
Now what does this have to do with our present context? The 21st century is the reverse of 4th century. Christians are losing power. We either no longer or are rapidly losing power in our culture. That means we can’t get things done.
This isn’t just academic or political. It means our kids are highly vulnerable to the siren song of the culture. One of the early shocks for me was to discover in my travels in the mid-90s that most Christian families were losing one or more of their kids to the culture. It used to be the “prodigal” who lost his way to licentiousness. Now our “prodigals” have reasonably well-ordered lives but see no need for Christianity.
In fact the de-Christianizing trend began in earnest about two hundred and fifty years ago in intellectual circles, took root deep about a hundred years ago in the university and spread into the media and our schools. Satan was both brilliant and patient. He went after the cultural transformation points. I’d much rather have the Universities, Hollywood and the Media that the presidency, the congress, and the courts.
How is this helpful to see that our century is the reverse of 4th?
It is exhilerating to be gaining power, to be in control of culture. Imagine what it felt like for the 4th century Christians to slowly take over Hollywood, the Universities, and the Media. Imagine hearing Dan Rather pray in Jesus’ name, Oprah becoming a Christian, and the Supreme Court outlawing abortion. After almost 300 years of suffering, it was resurrection time for the church.
Now the opposite is happening and for many it is depressing. We are losing power, it ebbs and flows but the decline is very clear. It is just downright discouraging. We long for it to be “the way it was”…the “good old days” when Christians were in charge. At church we are listening to Focus on the Family’s “Truth Project” in Sunday School. I love how well it is put together and how thoughtful the teacher is about culture, but it has a bit of a angry feel, of standing up for our rights, that doesn’t reflect the spirit of Jesus in his Passion. We will not reach this dying world unless we ourselves are dying Christians. Our death is not vicarious, it is not atoning–only Jesus’ death is vicarious–but it is the pattern of his life and his life is our life.
At the gym I have 12 TVs in front of me. I can go liberal with CNN or conservative with Fox. It is the ultimate post-modern experience! Anne Coulter was on Fox and had just gone off on something and Neil Cavuto asked her, “Anne, are you angry?” She didn’t say anything, but she was.
Here are some more organized thoughts:
1. Sadness. Instead of anger we can feel sadness. Instead of a fist, a tear. Anger can have the spirit of trying to get American “back the way it was”. Anger at having something stolen from us. Sadness is grieving over the loss. It is such a pure response to pain and disappointment. During a particular painful time in my life God brought to mind Isaiah 53, “It pleased the Lord to bruise him.” God was pleased to permit me to go through suffering. It helped me not to kick against what God was doing and demand my rights. [I’d suggest reading the chapter in Love Walked Among Us on how Jesus faces sadness. I think it is about chapter 21.]
2. Prayer. Let your sadness turn into groaning and prayer. During one particular difficult moment of humiliation in my life, John 12 came to mind, “Unless the seed dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit…Where I am, so will my servants be….my Father will honor the one who serves me.” I thought, by not lashing out, by serving in humility when I have no future, by letting someone else take credit for my work, I am serving my Father. The next moment I was overwhelmed with the thought that by doing that I was serving my Father and nothing would stop him from honoring me.
3. Sovereignty. Knowing that God is in control allows us to pull back and say, “Wow, this pattern of declining Christendom has been going on for a long time. Sometimes it accelerates and sometimes it pauses or goes slightly in reverse, but it is a dominate pattern that God is permitting. What is God doing? What opportunities does he have for his church in a dying world? As the world increasingly resembles the paganism of the first three centuries of the church, we need to respond to that world in the same way the early pre-Constantine church did. We need to learn how to die again. We need to relearn how to be bold, to engage a dying world with a dying and risen Savior.
4. Love. Love our enemies. How can we as Christians love when we have less power, are more easily misunderstood, and stereo-typed? My board chairman Timo was turned down by a donor for a gift to our work. The donor said that he’d already allocated all his giving for the year. He had none left. Timo didn’t miss a beat, “That’s great. I don’t want your easy money, I want the stuff that really counts. I want your heart.” Now as Christians we have to move from easy love to the stuff that really counts. We have to learn to love in an uneven world, where we are stereo-typed, where love isn’t fair. And it never was fair anyway. Love is simply the extension of grace. Grace never pretends to be fair.
I have two other thoughts both with Biblical roots as to our current location in history.
The first is the Passion. I will expand on this at some other point, but I believe that the Book of Revelation is the Passion of the Church. Just as Jesus completes Israel’s life so the church will complete Jesus’ life. At the very least, you have to admit that the immediate context of Revelation is suffering. It is through suffering, I believe, that the church will be purified, united, made ready for her Lord. We are in the early edges, historically, of that Passion.
The second is the Millenium. I think a pretty good case can be made that Christendom (literally, Christ’s Kingdom) was the millennial rule of Christ. More of that at another time.
By the way, forty years after the Goddes Nike came down from the Roman Senate, Rome fell, and the only thing left standing in the West was the church. The Galileean had conquered. Jesus alone was victor.
Now off to the chiropractor.